Pharr is a city in the Rio Grande Valley region of far southern Texas, a 70-mile string of cities between Mission in the west and Brownsville in the east, roughly paralleling US 83 along the Mexican border. The region is one of the fastest growing in the nation, with a current population of over 1 million and a projected estimate of 1.3 million a decade from now. This explosive growth is due, in part, to the presence of the border with Mexico. An estimated 2 million people live on the Mexican side of the border, and when combined with the U.S. side the regional population is comparable with that of Texas’ larger cities, like San Antonio. The region is also growing due to tourism from both Mexican nationals, snowbirds, and more recently eco-tourism.
As mentioned, a large percentage of the tourism in the Rio Valley of Texas comes from Mexican nationals, and much of that is for shopping. Even though NAFTA has made American-made products widely available on the Mexican side of the border, many of the large malls on the American side as well as other retail outlets are packed with autos sporting Mexican license plates, from Distrito Federal (Mexico City) to the most often seen Nuevo Leon (Monterrey) and Tamaulipas (the Mexican side of the border here).
Generally, however, these tourists and locals are shopping at super-regional malls catering to this cross-border region – malls like Sunrise Mall in Brownsville and La Plaza Mall in McAllen. As with other regions of the country, there are several centers which have fallen by the wayside.
El Centro Mall in Pharr is one of these. Located at the intersection of Central Ave and U.S. 83 in Pharr near the border with McAllen, El Centro was once the destination mall for the entire Valley and neighboring Mexico as well. However, with competition emerging in the 1980s from the massive behemoth La Plaza Mall just down the road in McAllen, both tourist and local dollars alike fled El Centro. So too did the anchors, with Sam’s Club and Montgomery Ward leaving and being replaced with Rehoboth Joy Dollar (former Sam’s), a Grand Central Station indoor entertainment facility, a Convergys call center, and a roster of mid-range stores, many of them local. The only anchor to weather the economic changes at the mall has been Bealls, a store which seems to never update its facade despite the success of the mall it occupies.
The decor of the 350,000 square-foot El Centro Mall harkens back to the 70s and 80s, with several stores sporting fronts which are a couple decades out of date. In addition, the lighting inside the mall is relatively poor and the ceilings are rather low. At least the Easter Bunny was there. He had some pretty cool digs too in the way of a tattered, brown la-z-boy from days-gone-by, but we digress.
Today, the future of El Centro Mall is in question. As of December 2006, the city of Pharr met with Houston-based owners Levcor Inc. to discuss the mall’s future, and impress upon the new owners their desire for renovation. The city would like the renovation to return the center to its retail roots, and kick the indoor entertainment facility as well as the call center out of the mix. The call center and entertainment facility have no plans to leave, however, and both have leases through at least 2009. In addition, Levcor recently purchased 10 acres to the north of the mall with plans for chain restaurants and other retail outlot activity.
Clearly, despite the downfall of the mall itself, the area is still growing by leaps and bounds and continued economic viability of the area seems likely. However, the mall itself will probably fall victim to redevelopment and be ultimately torn down. At any rate, the mall has been preserved here in visual form; pictures were taken in April 2007. As always, feel free to complete the story of El Centro through your personal anecdotes and a more thorough history than what we’ve already found.